Transparency and development give way to the same old corporate agenda at the Hong Kong trade talks
The trade summit in Hong Kong from December 13-18 ended pretty much as expected -- with a vague face-saving agreement to keep talking. The conference declaration agreed to by trade ministers and hailed by the World Trade Organization as a major victory was in fact the result of an elaborate dance through a week of strong-arm backroom dealing surrounded by carefully orchestrated political theater.
'The declaration was deliberately kept minimalist to avoid another failure like Cancun,' reads a post-conference analysis by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. 'In fact, the agreement is so watered down it is hard to determine what impact it will have. Most of the work is still to be done.'
In the end, say WTO critics, the world's farmers and poor people
lost out, while US and European corporations won big, extracting
major concessions from developing countries on trade in services
and industrial products. 'Total failure of the [current] WTO Doha
[in Qatar in 2001] was averted,' Indian activist
Vandana Shiva writes on ZNet, 'by the fig leaf of
withdrawal of export subsidies in agriculture by 2013 (while most
of the $400 billion subsidies of the rich country industrialized
corporatized agriculture will remain) and the fig leaf of
The WTO took pains to give the ministerial the appearance of greater transparency than previous gatherings, publishing, for example, statistics like the number of cups of coffee trade ministers drank during the final late-night negotiating session (350). Director-General Pascal Lamy even posted daily diary entries to a blog on the WTO website, embellishing with cute personal touches like 'B+B for lunch (I mean bread and bananas, of course).'
But despite the trappings of openness and transparency, nothing was left to chance, reports Martin Khor of the Penang, Malaysia-based Third World Network. At the carefully-choreographed closing session:
'Chairs were arranged theatre-style, with no tables in front of delegates or microphones or the name card of the countries. There were no standing microphones either in the aisles. A more participation-unfriendly arrangement would be hard to imagine.'
Meanwhile, thousands marched in the streets outside the convention center chanting 'Down, down WTO!' More than 800 protesters, mostly South Korean rice farmers, were arrested after a scuffle with police. Yet according to Khor, the only dissenting voices that will make it into the WTO's official record of the conference belonged to delegates from Venezuela and Cuba, who walked onto the stage during the closing session and demanded that they be allowed to speak.
The delegates agreed to resume their negotiations at a mini-ministerial at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January, an annual gathering of global business and government elites that is not known for its openness and transparency. Whether they're able to come to an agreement remains to be seen, Tom Burgis reports on openDemocracy:
'The Hong Kong deal will be fleshed out in the backrooms of Geneva. But one thing is already clear and was best put by Arvin Boolell, Mauritius's minister of agriculture and chair of the fifty-six-strong African, Caribbean and Pacific Group: 'Once again, we are being placed between the hammer and the anvil.''
Go there >> The Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference
Go there too >> Ministerial Declaration
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